Topographies of Wind and Power is an interdisciplinary and collaborative undertaking in documentary photography and American ethnographic visual studies that addresses the history of wind power in its technological and cultural valences of meaning in the wind-rich state of Kansas, the geographic centerpoint of the country and the paradigmatic point of convergence of American political viewpoints. Done in collaboration with visual culture scholar Lisa Cartwright, this project documents the transformation of Kansas from grain belt to wind corridor, a change that has been fraught with controversy about land rights and usage and the control of what one can see and feel, not only on one’s own land but on the land of one’s neighbors.
Wind farming has had a strong presence on the Kansas landscape since 2001 when the first large-scale wind energy facility was erected. Seven large wind facilities were built over the ensuing decade, making Kansas a major contender in the wind energy race after California, Iowa and Texas, turning some landowners into wind developers, and others into staunch opponents.
The project’s focal points include Greensburg, a town devastated by a tornado being rebuilt through new green technologies including “community” or “distributed” wind power; Spearville, the self-proclaimed “City of Windmills” that has welcomed massive industrial scale wind; and the Flint Hills, a region where at one end wind developers were successfully resisted by ranchers and nature conservancy experts to protect the last of the American untilled prairie, but at the other end is the site of a working ranch where cows graze under wind turbines as the land does double duty in supporting wind turbines.
The investigation of this transformation through photography and interviews brings to light deeper, varied, and complex meanings of wind and wind power as a means and an emblem of farm life in transformation, as a factor in private and civic life, as a harbinger of battles looming with shifts in energy policy and practice, and as a tool to revitalize the state’s economy and national profile.